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By Dave McKenna
Robert Pollard, at 41, is starting to feel that rock stardom ain't all it's cracked up to be.
"When you're a kid and you go to all the concerts and you look up at the stage, you just think about the performing and looking good and having girls yell at you," says the Guided by Voices mainstay from his home in suburban Dayton. "And I don't want to sound like a complainer, because I chose todo what I do, but lately I've got so many . . . OBLIGATIONS." Obligations such as spending entiredays in his kitchen, fielding one pre-arranged phone call after another from writers around the globe who want to get his opinion on topics like, well, stardom.
On the positive side, Pollard, whose band plays at the 9:30 club on Friday, wouldn't be getting so many calls or facing that line of questioning if he weren't moving some product and at least flirting with mainstream eminence. GBV's latest CD, the Ric Ocasek-produced "Do the Collapse," has now spent a month atop the CMJ chart, which gauges what cool kids are listening to. It's the first GBV release to chart so highly, as well as his band's first CD to be put out by TVT Records after a decade of independent albums and four years on Matador. That doesn't make him Garth Brooks, but on this day the price of even Pollard's level of fame is his free time. Time that could be spent writing more songs, or playing basketball with his buddies on the full court that takes up essentially his entire backyard.
But Pollard, at least for the time being, regards that as a small cost, particularly since "Do the Collapse" has brought GBV radio airplay in his hometown. He went to college in Dayton, lives in the same ZIP code as his boyhood home, and twice a week he plays ball and catches a beer buzz with a gang that includes many of the guys who were his teammates when he was a multi-sport star at Northridge High School in the mid-'70s.
While Daytonians ignored GBV until recently, a lot of influential outsiders professed their love for the band. Beginning around the time "Bee Thousand" came out in 1994, they did what they could to spread the word of Pollard's monstrous melodic gifts . That was GBV's sixth album, but it seemed like overnight the band became both the new kids and the old men of indie rock. The tale of the hard-rocking grade-school teacher with middle-age hair and an adolescent outlook made for one of the most endearing, and most-told, pop music stories in recent memory. Jim Greer fell so hard for GBV while authoring an article for Spin that he put writing on hold and actually joined the band when an opening for a bass player arose in 1995. Jay Carney, Time magazine's congressional correspondent and telegenic pundit, once sneaked a plug for GBV into a taping of "The McLaughlin Group." Filmmaker Banks Tarver even did a documentary about GBV's climb.
The positive press never translated into big sales. Nor did the notices turn the heads of radio programmers, not even in Dayton. The reviews haven't been quite as glowing for "Do the Collapse" as for Pollard's previous efforts. But recently, an alternative station there, following the lead of many such outlets across the country, put "Teenage FBI," the first single off the new album, into its rotation. For the first time his family and friends have started hearing GBV coming from a source other than Pollard's living room stereo. Pollard says his level of notoriety in his hometown is now about where it was when he was a schoolboy jock, and that's clearly more important to him than what some out-of-state scribe thinks of his work.
"There's nothing like local fame, I tell you," he laughs. "The people in Dayton don't understand anything like underground adoration or cult status, so even though there were some fans from pretty much around the world who knew about Guided by Voices and what I was doing, around here I never got recognized like the sportscasters on the local TV stations do. But now, being on the radio, people are coming up to me, like they want to know me again. I'm not a big star, but I'm almost as famous as I was when I was in high school. I've got quarterback status again."
Some segments of the GBV fan base, however, aren't happy with the steps it took to get him that air time. They don't like GBV using a big-name producer or putting a power ballad, complete with a string quartet ("Hold On Hope") on the CD. They miss all those hissy snippets of songs that GBV albums once were packed with. But it's "Teenage FBI" that's the real flash point for the sellout accusations being leveled by longtime followers -- an obsessive troop laden with thirtysomething males who bring their air guitars wherever they go. To many of them, the new single is just a tarted-up version of the 90-second "Teenage FBI" that Pollard released on a seven-inch back in 1995. The rendition of "Teenage FBI" on "Do the Collapse" has the same verses in the same order, but clocks in at a radio-friendly 2:53 only because Pollard sings everything twice. Pollard's decision to allow Ocasek to add Cars-style keyboards and guitar effects to the mix was the final nail in the coffin that carries the remains of GBV's much-romanticized lo-fi era. Pollard expected the backlash but makes no apologies.
"When I first heard [Ocasek's remix of] 'Teenage FBI,' I didn't want to put it on the album," he says. "But Paulina [Porzikova, Ocasek's ex-supermodel wife] told me I have to leave it on. 'That's the hit!' she said. So I left it. And I think it was the right thing to do. Yes, I'd already put the song out, but it was pretty obscure. Not many people heard it, but now they can. As for the sound, well, I've always been into the arena-rock thing, all that grand posturing, and we're almost there now. I don't want to say I'm a poser or posturer, but just because we have solos in our songs now, that confuses the people who want us to be this anti-big rock band. That's never been me. I'm a student of big rock."
And he also understands that rock, no matter what size, is his full-time job now. While the failure to produce anything radio programmers could grasp onto out of the hundreds of songs GBV recorded never worried the fans before, it caused some strife between the band and its former label, Matador. As for being a lo-fi infidel, Pollard says the new clean sound and more conventional song structure on "Do the Collapse" is a triumph of artistic growth over inertia.
"GBV now is this very professional entity," Pollard says. "To get a GBV album out now is like a two-year process. In the old days, we'd get together and make up songs on the spot. Those days are gone. I miss that style of doing things a little bit, but I want to get better. Now, I'm writing songs that are structured, and I'm starting with lyrics first." This from the guy who in 1996 outlined his career goals as hoping to someday be "fatter than Elvis and drunker than Meatloaf."
To mitigate the naysaying, Pollard says he intends to write and record at the frantic pace kept by earlier renditions of GBV. But, for contractual reasons, he'll release most of that material on small Dayton labels, using assumed band names like Lexo and the Leapers and Nightwalker. Counting the GBV collection, Pollard says he'll put out five full-length CDs this year. "That's got to be some sort of industry record," he says. The folks at TVT have assured him his indie side projects are no problem, now that they know they can treat the recordings as demo tapes for future major-label CDs.
"Anything they like, I'll do it again and throw it on the next GBV album."